Business Standard The Affair Continues
April 17, 2010
Business Standard

The Affair Continues

Six major art shows at the most prestigious galleries and nobody's surprised
Janice Pariat / London April 17, 2010, 0:57 IST

London hasn't quite had the sunny beginnings of an Indian summer, yet things are a little warmer on the art front. Several excellent exhibitions around the city feature artists from the subcontinent and subjects ranging from ancient Mughal portraits to explorations of contemporary Indian art.

This flurry of shows is not new. Last year saw 'Indian Highway' at the Serpentine Gallery, a tremendous display of works that explored the importance of road travel in India; 'Indian Summer' at the British Museum which had, among other things, a rare exhibition of paintings from the royal court of Jodhpur; and 'Maharaja: the Splendour of India's Royal Courts' at the Victoria & Albert.

Indian art, the contemporaries especially, has been getting a lot of exposure abroad. In the UK itself, Initial Access had 'Passage to India Part II' from March to August last year, with works by six artists including Reena Saini Kallat, and Thukral and Tagra. 'Chalo! India' at the Mori Art Museum in Japan (December 2008-March 2009) was a landmark show with 100 works and 27 artists, while 'India Xianzai' at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai (July-August '09) was only slightly smaller with 21 artists. India was in focus at the ARCO art fair in Madrid last year and next year, the Pompidou Centre will host a huge show on India, with works specially created for it.

The list above flags just some of the bigger, more concerted efforts to showcase Indian art. Maithili Parekh points to another, heartier development — "galleries abroad taking on Indian artists. It began with Dayanita Singh and the Frith Street Gallery, but now you have Subodh Gupta with Jack Shainman in New York, and Hauser & Wirth in London, Jitish Kallat with Haunch of Venison and so on."

Sunil Gupta, photographer and curator of 'Where Three Dreams Cross' at Whitechapel Gallery, one of the six shows in London this summer, finds a qualitative difference in the attitudes of galleries and arts institutions in the West to Indian art now. "Earlier 'Indian' meant 'craft' primarily, or sub-standard stuff while the interesting, sophisticated things were left to the Westerners. That has been changing in the last three-four years."

Touring the exhibitions

'The Astronomy of the Subway', a exhibition of new works by Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat, concluded recently at Haunch of Venison. There were video and sculptural installations, photographs and the large-format paintings for which he is known. Inspired by Mumbai where he lives, Kallat explores the experience of survival within a space that makes this almost impossible. His sculptural work of an oversized black lead kerosene lamp carries hundreds of images from Victoria Terminus, the heart of Mumbai's commuter action. Several of these depict animals devouring each other, an apt though disturbing representation of a violent 'urban jungle'.

The gallery is now showing 'Forever Foreign' by New York-based artist Rina Banerjee, whose paintings and sculptures are dense with colours and hybrid flora and fauna that create a fantastical, mythical world. Banerjee uses myriad materials on canvas along with soft washes of watercolour. The largest and most striking depicts a levitating and diaphanous pink Taj Mahal. Within it stand a globe and a throne enveloped in pink bubbles.

Bharti Kher, whose solo show 'inevitable undeniable necessary' is currently on at Hauser & Wirth, works a lot with found objects — mirrors, furniture, etc. — which she transforms into something unusual, mainly by using stick-on bindis. In 'Confess', colourful bindis cover every inch of the interior of a wooden box room. While their vibrancy undercut the solemnity of the ritual of confessing, a single bare bulb hanging in the centre carries connotations of prisons and torture cells.

There's more of Kallat and Kher's work at 'The Empire Strikes Back: Contemporary Indian Art' at the Saatchi Gallery, an ambitious showcase of 26 artists including Subodh Gupta, Pushpamala N, Bharti Kher, Tallur L N, Kriti Arora, and T V Santosh. Kallat's installation, 'Public Notice', is arguably the most poignant here, but there are other works in the collection that 'strike out against the empire' — Huma Bhabha's bronze sculpture, 'The Orientalist'; Reena Saini Kallat's portraits of Pakistani and Indian civilians blemished by the shadowy maps of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir; and Chitra Ganesh's comic-book prints using Amar Chitra Katha-style imagery to retell history through strong female figures.

On a smaller yet no less ambitious scale was 'Where Three Dreams Cross' which ended at the Whitechapel Gallery last Sunday. An exploration of 150 years of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi photography, it drew on a large number of sources including the Alkazi Collection in Delhi, the Abhishek Poddar Collection in Bangalore and the White Star Archive in Karachi, and was divided into five visual themes — 'Performance' (Bollywood in the 1940s and 50s), 'Portrait' (19th-century studio portraits and street photography), 'Family' (relationships within society), 'Streets' (built environment, social documentary and street photography), and 'Body Politic' (key political moments and movements in the subcontinent's history). This last could have been an exhibition all to itself, and cramped into one room seems insubstantial. A pity, since the rest of the show was invaluably comprehensive.

'Indian Portraits: 1560-1860' at the National Portrait Gallery brings together over 60 works, categorised into Mughal, Deccan, Rajasthani and Company Paintings. The exhibition allows for quick cross references, with informative plaques on how, for example, a three-fourths profile portrait was unbecoming for royalty. Downstairs, the Singh Twins, British-Asian artists based in Liverpool, explore themes from this exhibition with a display of their own work, drawing heavily on traditional Indian painting fused with contemporary Western influences.

While these shows can be seen as reaffirmation of the interest in India/Indian art, there are dissenting voices. Says Lucian Harris, who reports for the London-based journal, The Art Newspaper, from New Delhi, "India, thanks to the colonial connection, has always been of interest to the British. In fact, this [the flurry of exhibitions] could have happened any time in the past five years. It's a little late now to be showing contemporary artists such as Subodh Gupta and Jitish Kallat, who were at their peak two years ago."

New Delhi-based gallery owner Arun Vadehra, who opened the Grosvenor Vadehra in London five years ago, shares the sentiment —"Such exhibitions by Indian artists keep happening. Hauser & Wirth, where Bharti Kher is showing now, concluded a Subodh Gupta show just last month. Of course, five shows at one time generates an added interest."

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